The Berlin Street Artist: A Parable of Passion and Practice

Andy has been a street performer for over fifteen years. He’s originally from Britain, but he’s called Berlin his home for the last four of those years. We watched his show at a festival in Berlin’s Westend neighborhood this past weekend. In his performance, Andy combined juggling, balance and slapstick – all suffused with his dry British humor.

His finale: fire juggling on a tightrope held by members of the crowd.

While I enjoyed the wit, the feats, and the crowd reaction, it was a post-performance chat with Andy that really left an impression.

Over a beer, we spoke with him about travel, the places he’d been, and his business.

Crowds in Argentina are fantastic, but you have to keep an eye on your stuff or it will disappear,” he recalled. “On the other hand, crowds in Berlin are not as enthusiastic. But at least you don’t have to worry about your stuff.

He followed with a story about his six-month journey to India to practice juggling many years ago.

Why India?” Dan asked. “Is there some special juggling school there?

No, I was crazy about juggling and knew that if I were to become really good, I needed to practice, practice, practice. India seemed like a good place to do that since it was inexpensive and away from it all. So, I worked in a factory in the United Kingdom, saved money and went first to Amsterdam to practice on the streets and then to India for six months to really learn the trade. I traveled with my buddy – he was also a juggler; we pushed each other to do more, better. When I returned, I was ready to perform.

Andy not only had a passion, but he also had the discipline to pursue it, to harness it, to hone it. He worked his butt off to take that passion from hobby to profession.

During our conversation, I felt like we were playing out a chapter from Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. In it, Gladwell emphasizes the value of repetition in developing proficiency, noting that it takes approximately 10,000 hours to make a trade your own.

Then I considered all the ingredients that stitch their way into the development of a street performer’s craft – anyone’s craft, really: talent, passion, hard work, courage, persistence, good fortune, and a sprinkling of magic dust ground of life circumstances that expresses itself subtly in exceptional performances.

And all this got me to thinking that the discourse on passion is often over-simplified:
Follow your passion and the – (fill in the blank) money, success, happiness, satisfaction – will follow.

There are many – myself included, at times – who subscribe to the belief that passion alone is sufficient.

Passion is necessary, for sure. At the core, yes. But sufficient? Not really.

It goes back to the ingredients, not least among them the hard work and endurance, that make the difference between a dream of success and the reality. And even then, there’s no guarantee.

Our conversation with Andy prompted me to evaluate my own situation. No, I’m not a street performer (most of the time), but I took his experience to heart.

And I wondered: do I have the necessary ingredients – the discipline and the gumption in particular – to take my performance to the next level?

Excuse me, but I need to go juggle some fire.

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Comments

  1. says

    What a beautiful story.

    Passion is the differentiating factor between just “working” and living out a “calling.”

    Passion is the fuel that keeps us going during difficult days, sick days, grumpy days.

    Passion makes us blind to difficulties that would stop others dead in their tracks.

    Passion means you do it, whether or not you get success, money, fame… if you stop because you don’t attain these things, then it wasn’t a passion in the first place (or the passion faded).

    Thanks for getting me to think about this…

  2. says

    Great story! One of this encounters that makes you wonder and think… hmm? Thanks for telling us.
    Btw, is there any video and/or pic of Andy juggling?

  3. says

    Nice article. I really enjoy a good street performer. I have taken the opportunity to speak to several. I usually find them funny, quirky and bright people. It sounds like you just found another one that I would enjoy. thanks

  4. says

    You’re right: passion *isn’t* enough. 10,000 hours helps. This quote (sorry I don’t know the origin) sort of sums it up: It takes twenty years of hard work to become an overnight success.
    Great post.

  5. says

    This is a great story. Is there any chance that Andy has a website?

    I love hearing about people who able able to focus so intensely on accomplishing a single goal.

    I also don’t think that passion is enough. Many people in the world have a passion for watching TV, shopping and eating but it is unlikely they are going to turn those activities into any sort of career.

    Another problem is that people believe there is some unique passion they could be doing that doesn’t feel like work. “If only I could find my passion then work will be fun and exciting.”

    Even fun things get boring if done long enough. Look how many rockstars sing about how hard it is to be on the road all the time.

    I have a passion for running, but I still dread getting started every time I go. I love the feeling when I am finished but the first 10 to 20 minutes are always hell.

    I also have a passion to play guitar. However, I don’t have the motivation and diligence to practice for 5 to 8 hours a day to really get good. Even if I was that good, I don’t want to work for next to free and travel around in a small van to lousy venues with a band.

    When people say that have a passion, it usually means they wish they were rich and famous with little work. People who put in the work don’t speak of ‘passion’ they get their enjoyment from self-improvement and personal excellence. The real secret of talented people is focus, not discovering some illusive idea of passion.

  6. says

    @Sasha: Glad you enjoyed this story. It stuck with me, so I wanted to share it with others. You mention passion helping get one through the tough times and bad days – I look at sometimes as a grounding force, a reminder that it’s all worth it.

    @Sandra: I enjoy encounters like this that challenge my assumptions and make me think just a bit differently. I did take some video of Andy juggling, but I haven’t looked at it yet to be honest. I’ll send you a link to it if it’s any good and I upload it to Youtube.

    @Dave: Just a couple of days after meeting Andy, we saw a bluegrass band playing near one of the markets in Berlin. Again, I was impressed by their talen and dedication. We did have a chance to talk with them briefly as we ran into them later that night. Maybe I’ll make it more of a habit to talk with street performers.

    @Layne: That quote is perfect – I’ve seen it before (and also can’t remember where either). And then there is the disclaimer that even after the 10,000 hours and 20 years there still might not be any “overnight success.” But instead of being disheartened by that, I’m reminded of TaxiBerlin’s comment of dancing on the beach at the end of “Zorba the Greek” and the phrase you learned in Berlin and shared with us “lebenskünstlers” (life artists).

    @John: Thanks for your thoughtful comment and sharing. Unfortunately, I don’t know if Andy has a website – we shared a beer and then he took off without exchanging details. If I find one, I’ll be sure to pass it on to you.

    The conversation with Andy made me look at some of the things I have referred to in the past in the context of: “I’m passionate about X.” But, like the guitar example you use, many of these things fall into the category of “something that I like and would like to be a part of my life”, but not my life’s work. I/we have been thinking about future steps for this website and our personal and professional lives and this discussion helped remind me of the focus and discipline needed to make something successful.

    That said, I do think that being passionate about something helps to focus you when you’re putting in the hours, but it’s the discipline and work that usually makes the difference. And, sometimes the work is great, but there is usually tasks that aren’t so great but you just have to get through it for the bigger picture.

  7. says

    I love reading stories about people following their hearts and passions. To see someone dedicated to their craft and following an unconventional path despite what others may think about them is inspiring. It takes a lot of courage and determination to get to the point where everything starts coming togeather. Not every one can see that from the beginning and assume the journey as impossible. Therefore, never taking action. Good to see others out there living life to the fullest and taking risks.

  8. says

    Passion IS the fire that is lit beneath us … and often times the only thing that draws the line of difference between just simply existing …. and living.

    Enjoyed this post!

    (still pondering the piece about street beggars … will have to wait at least until after Commonwealth Games, as they’ve all been shoo’d somewhere “out of sight” for the moment)

  9. says

    Compelling story, had trouble tearing myself away. Wish you got a photo of him juggling. Passion is certainly the spark, but with anything you just planted – you need to water it, prune, fertilize & then it will grow.

  10. says

    Hey,

    excellent post; I’m a disciple of Malcolm Gladwell’s; love it when his thoughts turn up in unexpected places. You’re absolutely right about passion not being enough. I find that passion is the thing that gets you out of bed and it’s sheer willpower that fills in the blanks.

    For example, I am passionate about photography but that passion got in the way of me starting up a business for years. When I finally got round to starting it up it was only two years before our world trip so I’ve just had to fold it down again.

    However, now I also have passion for running my own business so starting it up again won’t be so bad.

    Excellent post!

  11. says

    @Jenny: Very wise words. And to add to that, I’d say that he was following his passion and living life on his own terms, even thought it didn’t provide him with a lot of financial security or luxury.

    @Naomi: I find that usually everyone is passionate about something and a person’s energy, body language and tone can change so much if you’re able to pinpoint that thing. Now, that passion may not be connected to his/her job (as is often the case), but I love seeing the giddy kid come out of the otherwise stoic corporate lawyer when I find out he is a model train fanatic (or whatever).

    You’ve got another story right there – where do the street beggars go when the government decides the streets should be cleaned up?

    @Nomadic Chick: Glad this story resonated in some way. I purposely didn’t put any photos of him in the post since I wanted to focus more on the story, but here’s a photo of him juggling fire if you’re interested: http://uncorneredmarket.com/photos/picture/5012247232/

    @Thom & Sean: I love how Malcolm Gladwell is able to turn common assumptions on its head. The discussion about the pilots and the role culture and language has in the cockpit was enlightening…and alarming.

    Thanks for adding your experiences to the discussion. It sounds like when you return from this trip maybe you’ll open a photography business and combine the two passions? Or, are the passions too different to combine?

  12. says

    What an inspiring story! The reality is that if it were that easy to follow your passion then everyone would be doing it. But I choose the difficulties that come with following my passion over the alternative of mindless work at a desk job with no fulfillment in my life. And if it doesn’t work out as planned, then at least I still have a suitcase of adventurous stories!

  13. says

    @Thom and Sean: Hey, thanks for sharing the link to your business. So happy you were able to combine your photography and entrepreneurial passions together! Beautiful photos – love your philosophy about getting away from traditional portraiture and wedding photography.

    @Christy: You bring up a good point – there are often difficulties and hardships that come along with following one’s passion for many of us. Glad to hear you have overcome those and are actually doing it!

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